Thursday, September 14, 2006



I am a-rhythmic. I've got no rhythm.

As much as I try, I really have to work hard to find and then be able to play the rhythms for each new piece - even for the simple tunes (unless they're tunes I know from somewhere in my past). In order to work them out, I have to slow it way down in my head and count/tap it out. Then I have to do it over and over several times before it stays with me. This makes it tough to sight-read. I can read the notes and almost automatically finger them properly (after the initial panic attack). But the challenge is to be able to immediately "feel" the rhythmic relationships between those notes.

I guess I am a-tempic, too. I've got no tempo.

When I'm playing I have a hard time counting in my head. My attention is so full of the notes themselves, and where to finger them, and how they sound, that I have to struggle to hold them for their proper times. Usually I can hold the quarter notes for their designated beat (unless the piece is full of sixteenth notes), but I tend to underplay the dotted quarters and half notes, and I tend to overplay the eighths and sixteenths.

Today, finally, at the oft-repeated advice of my teacher, I refocused my attention to tempo, rhythm and bowing. Going back to some of the easier pieces in Suzuki 1, I played them slowly while counting aloud; I played them pizzicato slowly while counting aloud; I "sang" them (softly - I really can't sing) while tapping out the beat; I tapped out the beat with my right hand while saying the tempo aloud. In the end, it seemed that doing a combination of these methods helped. Then I moved on to the newer pieces and tried various combinations of these methods. Then I added the metronome, on a slow tempo, and added various combinations of tapping, singing, counting aloud, and pizzicato.

It's too early to tell if all this has done any good, or what combination is going to work best. I'm really hoping it will pay off - today, I "felt" as if I had made some progress.

Meanwhile, I worked on my bow hold, as well. I'm trying to keep my hand and fingers loose; to draw the bow parallel while keeping it midway between the fingerboard and the bridge; to put it on the right string before starting the note; to keep it on only one string; to maintain an even stroke - or not - as required. There's a lot to work on.

Uh oh, another storytime. During my high school and college days, and off and on after that until I was about 40 I played trombone. I also sang in the Penn State Glee Club and off and on in church choirs and never felt I had a rhythm problem.

Then I started cello at 49. My rhythm ability seemed to suddenly take a huge hit. Over 35 years with rarely a rhythm problem, suddenly I can't hold notes their full value, can't keep time with a metronome, Aaack! wazza-matter with me!!!!

Julie Lyons Lieberman has an explanation in her DVD on rhythm. Rhythm is maintained on the left side of the brain, pitch on the right. Because we must listen to and fine tune each fingered note, in violin (and cello) our right side tends to shut off the left side of our brains.

Practice, and as the left hand (which is controlled by the right side) requires less concentration, the right hand (which is controoled by the left side) can becaome more rhythmic.

You will probably find that rhythm is far far easier if you are playing the rhythm on open strings with your left hand at rest.
Hmm. Trombone. I have a friend who is quite talented with the trombone. His current goal is to play Bach's Cello Suites!

I figured there had to be some sort of left-brain/right-brain factor involved in all this. It was (may yet still be) a future blog topic. Now I see why my teacher has pushed me so hard to learn the rhythms on open strings, before worrying about intonation.
But wouldn't the listening to the pitch thing come into play with the trombone too Terry?

What a funny thing rhythm is. I don't seem to have much trouble with it yet - meaning the problems I have are the same ones I had with flute and saxophone. Rushing when I know a passage well, etc etc.

The problems I have are due to my own bowing screw-ups, like running out of bow or ending up somewhere backwards or whatever.

My husband, who is learning cello as his first instrument now, is having a bit of trouble figuring out how to internalise tempo or rhythm. I'm no help!
With a trombone you intonate with your right hand (left-brain) only, while your mouth (both brain halves) controls rhythm, dynamics, etc. - correct?

Switching to the cello, where the left hand (right-brain) controls intonation and the right hand (left-brain) replaces the mouth in controlling rhythm and dynamics, should be quite challenging to the previously established left/right brain functions related to making music.

Even with a flute or clarinet, etc., where both hands intonate while the mouth handles dynamics and rhythm, a cello would challenge these established brain processes.

Are there any other instruments besides the string family that so clearly separate which part of the brain handles the intonation and which handles the dynamics and rhythm?

Maybe music educators should screen young string wannabees to see which ones can pat their heads and rub their stomachs at the same time?
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